Classic Photographs Are Made In The Camera; They’re Simply Raised To A Higher Level In The Darkroom—Be It The Traditional Or Digital Kind
Monte Zucker
• Posted Sept 1, 2005

Making black and white photographs in the darkroom was never as exciting as it is now on the computer. I spent many years developing my own negatives and making prints. I settled for a lot less quality then than I'm getting now from my digital images. Plus, there is absolutely no waste. If I'm not happy with the results I simply go back a few steps in Photoshop and redo what I don't like.

I usually don't shoot in black and white. I usually shoot in color, large JPEGs. (Everyone is trying to talk me into shooting raw, so I'll probably succumb shortly.) I usually change the color to black and white when I feel that the color seems to interfere with the final picture. There are times, however, when I shoot with my Canon camera that has been adapted to shoot infrared ( I do this mostly outdoors when my photographs will include sunlit green trees and grass. The effect is so spectacular and so easy to achieve that it's almost like shooting with a point-and-shoot camera.

Recently during a conference in New York City I wanted to make some photographs that weren't "typical." This park beside one of New York's most famous churches was a perfect spot for my infrared camera.

All I had to do was adjust the tones in Photoshop's Levels. This gave me the exact contrast I wanted in the basic pictures. In the chemical darkroom I used to achieve a somewhat similar effect by using more contrasty paper. But then I had to buy a whole box of it. Now, digitally, I can adjust the contrast I want with each individual image.
I burn down the edges of almost all of my pictures by creating an adjustment layer in Photoshop's Curves. I then bring down the highlight side about halfway, darkening the entire image. Using an adjustment layer, I usually darken the image more than I want. Then I can paint the darkness away with black and/or bring it back if I've overdone it using white. My technique follows the old adage: "Black reveals. White conceals."

You wouldn't think that a beach would be a place for black and white photography, but that's exactly why I tried it during a class in Mexico. I wanted to create something different. The extreme tonal range in the black and white still kept detail throughout the entire picture--from the light bathing suits to the dark sky and water that was reflecting the sky's color.
At a Phoenix class earlier this year I photographed one of my students in color and later decided that it could be more effective in black and white. I changed it simply by selecting the green layer in Photoshop's Channels, changing the mode to gray scale afterward to get rid of the color and then bringing it back to RGB, because that's the mode that we mostly work in. The photograph was made under the cover of a porch using all available light. The repeating columns with light coming in between them were toned down for the final image, using the same technique as discussed earlier.
Undoubtedly, my favorite black and whites are created with my infrared camera. I'm loving what it does to skin tones, as well as what it does for the scene itself. One evening just before sunset at my Phoenix class we met a few high school seniors for a shoot at a local park. My goal was to show those in my class that high school seniors could appreciate good photography and judge it against some of the gimmickry to which they are being exposed by many professional photographers.

Fortunately, they didn't have to wait for me to process the pictures in a darkroom. After seeing just this first picture I had them in the palm of my hands. They did whatever I requested without question. They were flipping out at what they considered some of the greatest pictures they had ever seen.
I asked all of the student photographers to find their own locations for portraits, but ended up photographing all of them in locations that I had found myself. I explained how I needed to control the light for good portraiture. I wasn't making snapshots, I was creating real portraits.

My next location was inside a stone building where people were allowed to cook on grills. The building afforded cover overhead. There was direct sunlight coming in. I had two photographers hold up a Westcott translucent panel to soften the strong, direct light to soft, diffused light.
I posed the young lady in profile and turned her to achieve my normal lighting pattern that I use for almost all of my portraits. The only finishing I had to do was to slightly tone down the foliage outside the building. I opened the shadowed areas slightly by making a "contrast negative." With film I used to make a black and white contact negative from the color negative. Then I sandwiched them together and printed through the two of them. This opened up the shadow areas to show detail where it ordinarily would have been outside the range of tones that could have been printed with detail.

Now, in my digital Photoshop (CS) darkroom, I use Image/Adjust/Shadow and Highlights. What a difference it usually makes, opening up all the dark tones just enough to show the detail for which I'm looking. I have the default for the shadows set to 13.

I explained to everyone that this first picture was not a picture of the couple. It was, instead, a picture using the couple as scale to show the height of the trees. This picture and all that were created by me that evening were done with my infrared camera.

Going outside again I saw a nearby tree that offered a great frame for one of my typical poses. I leaned the young lady on the branch in the foreground and turned her face to profile. I adjusted her face for my regular lighting pattern. Then, the sun came out again, making it impossible to photograph the scene without her squinting her eyes. Once more we used the translucent panel to soften the light. To complete the picture I placed the young man behind her, turning his face toward the light rather than turning his face toward her and lighting up the back of his head.
While the others were doing their own thing with the model teen-agers, I found one of the girls standing alone and decided to try a technique that I had used many times before indoors, but never outside. I posed her framed within the branches of another tree, using the late afternoon sun to highlight the right side of her face. I then used my silver reflector to wrap the light around onto the left side of her face.
Monte's November class in Hollywood, Florida, will be a first. He's combining the talents of his Photoshop guru, Eddie Tapp, together with his regular portrait class. For details, contact Monte via e-mail at: The dates are November 7th-11th. The cost is $1000. It'll be digital portraiture start to finish--from the concept in your head to the output and sales. "Everything," Monte says, "will be hands-on!"